The characters in Cathedral by Raymond Carver

The characters are one of the elements with more complexity in Raymond Carver’s work Cathedral. Narrator (a character whose name is not given in the story) can be considered as a central one because of his important function in communicating with the reader.

From the very beginning, he shows to the reader that he is a person with prejudices. The blind man, Robert, is about to arrive to visit him and his wife and in this context he shows negative predisposition in relation with that fact. He is not open-minded at all. We can see this in actuations like this one: “Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman. Was his wife a Negro?” or this other: “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to”.

The fact is that the blind man and narrator’s wife have a past in common. In this sense, narrator is out of their conversation. Unlike narrator, his wife is not uncomfortable about the visit of Robert. He enjoys it a lot, because they are friends and also because she has a biggest feeling of humanity than his husband. Her answer “You don’t have any friends” is a proof of that, also her feelings of compassion for the blind man. The only way they all have to be in some way related is using the tapes. But when in one tape Robert is about to give his opinion of narrator, there is an interruption.

This makes a difference between narrator and his wife. But there are also remarkable differences between narrator and Robert. Paradoxically, narrator is blinder in an intellectual way (in figurative sense, of course) than Robert, who is in fact blind. Narrator’s close-mind prevents him to see correctly reality: Robert’s wife is not a Negro, Robert is not a man that “moved slowly and never laughed”, but a poor blind man, etc. In contrast, Robert is a man with a great initiative and open minded, always willing to learn, anywhere (“I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight.”, “I do now, my dear. There’s a first time for everything”).

What actually is a shared characteristic of these three characters is that all can be frustrated, and in fact they are. Narrator confesses he does not like his job and he has no chance to change it, narrator’s wife committed a failed suicide in the past because of a tormented relation and now she may feel misunderstood by his husband (“If you love me (…) you can do it for me”), and Robert is blind and his wife is dead. There’s another thing: all of them are vicious. The blind man less than the others, but they all drink and smoke illegal drugs. It is a common characteristic of Carver’s characters and it is related in some way with the frustration about life.

But to share this characteristic is not enough to make narrator feel comfortable in the conversation with his wife and Robert. He often tries to get in the conversation but doesn’t find the proper words: “’Likewise,’ I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, ‘Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you.’” He seemed lost in the conversation.

In contrast, the narrator’s wife attitude in the conversation is absolutely natural and fluid, except in two cases: when she thinks her husband is not behaving well (“[…] I got up and turned on the TV. My wife looked at me with irritation.”) and when he tries to make Robert as comfortable as possible:

My wife covered her mouth, and then she yawned. She stretched. She said, “I think I’ll go upstairs and put on my robe. I think I’ll change into something else. Robert, you make yourself comfortable,” she said.

“I’m comfortable,” the blind man said.
“I want you to feel comfortable in this house,” she said.
“I am comfortable,” the blind man said.

What happens is that the blind man belongs to the past of the woman, but this is not the main role of narrator: blind man will be his immediate future. They reverse roles. Gradually, narrator’s wife moves out of the conversation (in a radical way: she falls asleep), and the blind man keeps on slowly destroying the wall of prejudices and lack of confidence that narrator has built.

Following this process, while narrator’s wife is totally lost and asking “What’s going on? Robert, what are you doing? What’s going on?”, narrator and Robert are who, now, monopolize the action: narrator is not lost now, he is living new experiences thanks to that man that he despised and who during all the story has taken the initiative.

Carver’s characters are usually from low social classes, even in Cathedral. His characters usually have some grade of alcoholism, even in this story, as we have been able to check. Characters often feel their lives empty, they are frustrated. Sometimes they use TV as an evasion element: in Cathedral is also a social element that helps the blind man to break the wall of narrator. So Carver had a clear idea about what he wants to describe, and he does it from a pessimistic point of view (because of some biographical reasons), but at least he gives his characters the chance to discover, during the story, that they are actually frustrated. Character’s virtues, defects, fears, limitations are conditioned by all this things I have explained and related to this frustration.